Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Quit calling it a "tax"

The Waxman-Markey bill, which would establish a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, is making its way through congress. While I do favor the establishment of a cap-and-trade system, my purpose in this post is not to debate the merits of such a system in general or of Waxman-Markey in particular, but rather to focus on one part of the debate over the bill which I think is disingenuous: calling it a tax.

Cap-and-trade is fundamentally different from a tax in just about every sense of the word, especially so if the carbon emission credits are initially given away (and in Waxman-Markey as it currently stands, 85% are given away).

So why is this different from a tax? I see at least 4 reasons:
  • Other than the initial auctioned permits, the government is not receiving revenue from the cost of carbon permits. Taxes are levies where the money goes to the government. In a cap and trade system, most of the money is going into the secondary markets. And the initial auction permits are no more a tax any more than the government selling radio spectrum could be called a "radio tax." If the government has a valuable resource owned by the people (such as radio spectrum or the right to pollute), it is quite reasonable to get compensation for letting individual people or companies use that shared resource; this is a permit, not a tax. Any amount that individuals pay on the energy bills is not going to the government, which makes it difficult to call it a tax.
  • Tax rates are set by governments, not by markets. In a cap and trade system, markets set the price for carbon emissions. If the price goes up, the government does not make any more money. If the price goes down, the government does not lose any more money (again, excluding any initial sales of auctions).
  • Taxes cannot go to zero by the behavior of the people being taxed. But under cap and trade, if the economy produces less total carbon than the cap allows, then the price of carbon can go to $0. This would actually be a good thing (though I don't expect it will actually happen).
  • You're not allowed to offset your taxes, but you can in cap and trade. If I go into a high tax bracket, I can't average my salary with a homeless person's salary to get a lower tax rate. If I buy a house, I have to pay taxes on the land even if I give land away somewhere else. True carbon taxes have also been proposed, where the emitter would pay a price (probably set by the government) for each ton of emissions, regardless of how many trees they plant or how much they reduce carbon elsewhere. But with cap and trade, if I raise my carbon here and lower it there, I have no need for more permits and thus pay no more.
I'm not trying to argue that cap-and-trade systems have no cost (they certainly do), or that this particular bill is either a good implementation of cap-and-trade or effective at fighting climate change (I actually don't know enough to answer that, although my inclination is "yes" if only because it establishes a price for carbon, which currently has a rather arbitrary - and almost certainly incorrect - price of $0.) I'm sure there are lots of valid arguments against this bill, or against the timing (although I'm getting somewhat tired of the weak arguments that we shouldn't do anything at all, especially the arguments that climate change is a "hoax" or has no manmade cause).

Rather, I just want to make sure that we're calling this for what it is: it is an attempt to put a price on carbon, which is currently unaccounted for in our economic activity. This is a fundamentally different thing than a "tax."

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